Conrad Reeves:  A Kind of Perfection

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Exactly ninety years ago, Barbados was engaged in a very important constitutional battle with the Colonial Office in London, Sir William Conrad Reeves, Kt., Q.C., one of this country’s most able journalists, scholars, jurists and statesmen, in leading the Barbadian attack, openly preached that as long as good representative government was championed in Barbados, that so long as the Negro was assured opportunities to educate and improve himself and remain an integral part of the society rather than be treated as a second class citizen protected by the Colonial Office, then the future of Barbados could easily be that of the Negro.

In one of his many speeches, Reeves declared: “In spite of the drawbacks of want of education of the masses, which, however, is every day diminishing, nothing could work more satisfactorily than the exercise of franchise rights by the people of all classes in the Island.” On another occasion, he prophesied: “Here in Barbados, all our situations are framed to meet exigencies of a single community, though made up of different classes, and to  fit them for enjoyment of that self-government which is the common right of the entire colony.”

Reeves died on the 5th January, 1902. Just fifty-four years later, had Reeves been privileged to return to earth and visit the Barbados House of Assembly, there is the possibility that he might have been startled by the speed with which so many of his prophesies had come true. For among the twenty-four members of the House, he would have found only one white face returned by an electorate composed of both black and white.

It may seem paradoxical that I should expect Reeves to be startled by the swiftness of the change-over from his day, the day when he was the only coloured man in Parliament. But what is at the back of my mind is the naked, brutal fact that Conrad Reeves was born in slavery.  While the true genre of his political philosophy was “opportunity for the Negro”, the story of the past sixty years since Reeves’ death has moved at such a pace, many of us who have contributed to it have had few genuine or long interludes for serious reflection.

Reeves’ career was a great testimony to the theme of his own politics. It began in 1826. The sprawling Bridgetown, in common with most cities of the Caribbean, continued to merge or vanish into the fields of green sugar cane stalks which formed the props for the ceaseless drama of slavery in the West Indies. Dr. Phillips Reeves had a window to his surgery which mirrored those trafficking black bodies at one with the verdure and good earth surrounding them. He could watch them crossing the yard. and he could watch them at work. The males were remarkable for their erectness of carriage, sometimes more than half-naked, and muscular and shining with sweat. The females also wore little clothes. He could spend many pleasant moments by this window for two reasons. Firstly, his profession had taught him the wide pleasures of anatomy, and, secondly, his peers and elders had already condemned him as an eccentric, and had disapproved of his passionate love for Negro women.

Catching the doctor’s eyes was easy for a young, buxom slave like Peggy Phillis. Already, she had possessed most of the characteristics which all white men had traditionally fancied in coloured women. She was not pure black.  There was white blood in her veins, but while she was not fair enough to be called a mulatto, there was enough colour in her skin for her to be thought of as a ‘hut-dweller’. Generations before her had exploited this particular idiosyncracy of the white man, and of the Barbadian plantation society in general.

Although slavery was not yet abolished, many mulattos had already owned much property in Barbados, either through bequests in wills, or as compensation or personal favours dispensed by white men with eyes full of lust. And this mulatto segment of the population had always played a very important role in the island’s history of the eighteenth century and beyond. Towards the end of the seventeenth century, the importation of new Negroes from Africa came virtually to an end, when the slave trade had become totally uneconomic through the end of the war with Holland. There followed a peace which encouraged the Dutch to flood the entire American market with slaves. It was this ever-increasing mulatto population as a whole, on which the safety of the island depended, and which, in the course of time, played the most important part in the westernisation of the African Negro in Barbados.

Originally, the descendants of mixed breeding between many of  the victims of Judge Jeffries ‘shipped to Barbados’, or the Irish and Scottish indentured servants on the one hand, and the first Negroes on the island, who by the assistance of the Jews and the Quakers were taught skills and formed the artisan class among the early settlers. These mulattos had already made their mark on the society when Conrad Reeves was born. Many of them had fought in General Venables’ army, and had served in the several regiments attempting the conquest of Hispaniola. Since there was also a local law which gave complete freedom to any non-European who had killed an enemy of England in war, the number of free mulattos had become so formidable, it quickly became obvious that their pressure upon the society could not be ignored. Some were promoted to be assistant overseers, head drivers and head cattle and mule men over the pure Negroes. Some were put to learn trades, and very often too, those who had not yet acquired their freedom had been allowed to practise their trades off the plantation, and pay their masters a weekly sum from their earnings for this privilege.

This consolidation of the mulatto class also became a potent factor in leading to better treatment of the Negro population as a whole. When the novelty of the new authority wielded by the mulattos on plantation life had begun to wear off, the planter had found himself facing the problem of having to ask a mulatto son to whip his African mother.  Or he had to ask the mulatto boy to betray his totally black brother or sister who had emerged from the same womb. In other words, while the planter had successfully divided the non-Europeans on the island into two effective classes, the white blood in the veins of the mulattos had not been strong enough to dominate all the black blood.

Ever quick to consider any tangent relative to strengthening their hope of divide and rule amidst the rapidly increasing coloured population, the planters next stumbled on the policy of placing the premium of complexion and looks upon everything in the island’s way of life. This is a policy which continued to plague the social life or Barbados for many, many more generations to come. Around this period, the Napoleonic wars had sky-rocketed the price of sugar. To emphasize the economic prosperity  the West Indian planters were now enjoying, those planters who did not rush off to England to shop around for peerages tried to import most of what they thought of as the finer aspects of English living into the West Indies.

The successful planter now wanted his footmen, his coachmen, his valet and his butlers. The mulattos, having already become the artisan class or the kept mistresses, the concubines and the gigolos of this prosperous but licentious age, could not be interested in domestic work.  This gave rise to the better looking Negro male being promoted from the plantation field, while the handsomest girls were brought to be trained as cooks, chamber maids and children’s nurses.  An advertisement in the BARBADOS MERCURY of the 8th November, 1783, for example, reads:

”Wanted to Purchase, a mulatto or negro servant boy who can dress hair, wait at table, and attend a gentleman. A good price will be given for one with a good character given by a person of credit, by applying to Mr. John Paul or Mr. R. Redwar.”

In practice then, there were three types of Negroes in Barbados when the Napoleonic wars came to an end and the prosperity of sugar began to wane. There was the mulatto or middle class whose complexion and Euro-African features and habits provided general amusement for the rich. There was the domestic or peasant class who could aspire to a gift of land and freedom in his master’s will at some distant date, a situation which often caused planters or their widows to be murdered by valets and butlers anxious for their freedom. Finally, there was the class who, because of the limitations of pigmentation or physical characteristics, had had to remain doomed to total estate labour.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, even though slavery was yet to be abolished, the Negro population as a whole had ·made more strides.  This was due largely to what can be termed as a minor revolt of the mulatto women. That is to say, instead of the general run of these women continuing their previous policy of seeking the planters’ favours, (and perhaps, the loss of easy money in circulation due to the decline in sugar prices had played a vital part in this), there had been a general swing back to Negro men. There was now the unusual spectacle of many an African slave with concubines much fairer than himself.

Overall, however, the practice of setting social premiums on every important thing has still remained a potent factor in considering the general peace and welfare of the island.  For true to nature, the minor revolt of these mulatto women was soon offset  by the fact that the mulatto men had begun to seek their wives from among the “Red Legs” of the hills. This particular mating practice by the male mulatto was to have its true repercussions, three or four decades later, and was to produce the logical successor to planter aristocracy , who brought Barbados into the twentieth century.

The net result of this minor revolt of the mulatto women was that it brought about a complete change in the attitude of the White Man to the Negro.  So much so, in a letter to the Lords of Trade, a member of the Barbados House of Assembly, John Brathwaite, could boast that cruelty was no longer operative in the treatment of slaves. In his JOURNAL OF NEGRO HISTORY, Frank W. Pitman wrote: “The Negroes (of Barbados) had to themselves Sundays, holidays, the day after Christmas or ‘boxing day’ in England, and Good Friday, other authorities included Saturday afternoon. Slaves usually worked ‘from sun to sun’ allowing for breakfast and two hours at noon. After six o’clock, they were at liberty. In sickness, they were given great care.” On the 8th August 1788, a law was passed by the island’s Legislature making it illegal for a white man to kill a slave. If found guilty of such an offence, there was a maximum fine of £15.

In housing and general living conditions, much had also been accomplished.  For example, after the hurricane of 1786, we find a Mr. Senkhouse, the owner of Grove Plantation, starting the practice of doing away with slave compounds and providing a housing scheme for Negroes. Those Negro houses made of wood and with shingled roofs were laid out in neat streets, with a row of trees on either side to give the Negro lots the appearance of English avenues. These houses were also sufficiently wide apart as to prevent the spread of fire. Although the land on which these tenements were soon to be built was not the best of agricultural land, the “hut-dwellers” as the darkest mulattos were called, were soon quick to exploit whatever soil there was available.

In his book THE ECONOMIC GEOGRAPHY OF BARBADOS, Professor Starkey praises these “hut-dwellers” for their ability to raise poultry, surplus provision and kitchen crops, and sell them back to the plantation owners for extra clothing and luxuries. In 1805, two years before the slave trade was abolished by law, the Barbadian society had already passed a law to make the killing of a slave murder.

Dr. Phillips Reeves was a bachelor, and he lived alone.  Peggy Phillis would have welcomed going to bed with the master of the house, inasmuch as it had meant the customary promotion from the cane fields. She amused him until she became too unshapely in her pregnancy. He got interested in other women, and she was left to return to the fields.

A son was eventually born.  He was called William Conrad; and as customary amongst slaves throughout  the years, his surname came from the owner of the sugar plantation or family house on which he was born.  The infant had the skin of a ripe orange in colour, short curly black hair, a long European nose, and thinish lips.

The next six years of the little boy’s life are shrouded in mystery. When he was some five years old, his mother gave birth to another son; and it can be assumed, as was the lot of most West Indian women, of women in general, who form part of matriarchal societies, that Peggy Phillis had had to find some means of keeping the boy alive on her meagre resources. There were no poor and bastardy laws; and it was inconceivable and illegal to think of taking the doctor to court for maintenance for young Conrad. Both she and Conrad were simply expected to exist.